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The Trust exists to provide a way for the fans to get their voices heard by Newcastle United FC. We’re not a protest group, we want to develop formal links between supporters and the Club and to be a positive influence on supporter issues.

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Newcastle United fans are making a last effort to rid their club of Mike Ashley

Mike Ashley’s reign at Newcastle United has been the subject of an article in this months WSC by Paul Brown. NUST were asked to provide comment and the article is published in full below.

Among the shareholders attending the Sports Direct AGM on September 12 were several Newcastle United fans. Also in attendance was Mike Ashley, the Sports Direct CEO and Newcastle United owner, but fans were not able to question him on the relationship between the two businesses. During a rushed meeting, the board allowed no questions from the floor and departed after just 15 minutes. Ashley is under pressure from shareholders, suppliers, unions and MPs following repeated warnings of mismanagement
and poor working practices, and due to the fallout from the recent purchase of House of Fraser. A series of newly-coordinated protests from Newcastle fans seems the last thing he needs.

The protests are being led by the recently-formed Magpie Group, a coalition of fan organisations including the Newcastle United Supporters’ Trust (NUST), the Ashley Out campaign, True Faith fanzine, and stadium display organisers Wor Flags. At its first public meeting, a positive and well-attended gathering held in the week before the AGM, group organisers handed out factsheets detailing Ashley’s litany of offences during his 11 years of ownership, ranging from a lack of investment in players and facilities and the stifling of commercial income and matchday revenue to renaming St James’ Park the “Sports Direct Arena” and appointing Joe Kinnear as manager (twice!).

The facts do not make good reading for Ashley or the handful of pundits who repeatedly defend him in the media. Ashley bought the club in May 2007 for £134m, and inherited £77m of debt. According to the club’s latest accounts, by 2017 that debt had almost doubled to £152m. Sports Direct has never paid anything for the advertising that blankets St James’ Park. Commercial income has halved under Ashley’s ownership, while matchday income has fallen by a third.

Things have gone backwards on the pitch, too. In the 11 years before Ashley, Newcastle qualified for European competition ten times, reaching the Champions League group stages twice. In the 11 years since, the club has qualified for the UEFA Cup only once, and has been relegated from the Premier League twice. As for investment in players, a much-shared statistic shows that, since promotion in the summer of 2017, Brighton’s net spend is £110m, Huddersfield’s is £78m, and Newcastle’s is £1m.

Sports Direct controls the club’s retail operations, and in the five years to 2017 the club made a net loss of £5.5m from the arrangement. Ashley has purchased land behind St James’ Park’s Gallowgate stand, for a knock-down price of £6m, and obtained planning permission for a £70m residential development, effectively blocking any future expansion of the ground. The latest accounts for Ashley’s MASH Holdings company, through which he owns the club, were not published as required in January and are long overdue. Meanwhile, the club is under ongoing investigation by HMRC for suspected tax fraud.

“The owner clearly doesn’t care about the club,” NUST board member Colin Whittle tells WSC. “He does, however, care about his retail empire, and that’s what we’re concentrating on.” Protests outside stores and online are targeting Sports Direct and its many subsidiary companies and brands, including Flannels, Cruise, Slazenger and Firetrap, in an effort to disrupt the use of Newcastle United as a marketing tool. Part of the action involves spreading awareness of just how many brands are owned or part-owned by Sports Direct.

The protests have been given some urgency by the situation regarding Rafa Benitez’s contract, which expires at the end of the season. Fans fear Benitez will leave due to the lack of support from Ashley, prompting the #IfRafaGoesWeGo movement on social media. “To many of us it’s the  manager who is holding things together,” says Whittle. “This is galvanising fans in a way that we haven’t seen before. People aren’t prepared to allow Rafa to go without a fight.”

Protests outside Sports Direct stores have made national headlines, as has the creation of a website, sportsredirect.com, which directs shoppers to alternative sportswear retailers. The Sports Direct Twitter account has effectively been silenced after a barrage of disruptive responses from fans. So has the account for Keith Bishop Associates, Ashley’s PR firm. Shareholders and suppliers are also in the firing line. “Sports Direct’s share price has dropped,” says Whittle, “and while this is due to many factors, continued pressure from Newcastle fans is playing a part. We’d encourage fans of other clubs to support us. It’s hoped that he’ll eventually consider ownership of Newcastle more trouble than it’s worth.”

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Magpie Group: Second Open Meeting

The second open meeting organised by The Magpie Group took place at the Labour Club last night before a packed audience who listened to local MP’s Chi Onwurah, Ian Mearns and FSF CEO Kevin Miles.

The trio of speakers, all NUFC fans, spoke passionately about Newcastle United, their love for the club clearly demonstrated to an appreciative audience.

The evening began by Chi outlining the work behind her petition presented In Parliament about the ownership of NUFC which caused so much concern in the Ashley camp which led him to formally respond. She went on to explain how she now intended to ‘follow the money’, citing in particular the deal regarding the land at Gallowgate Car Park on Strawberry Place.

Life Long fan Ian Mearns, Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Football Supporters, then followed, highlighting his travels following NUFC over the years and explaining his role as Chair and its purpose which is to protect the interest of football fans. He spoke passionately of his desire to see fans come together to protect the future of NUFC.

Ian was followed by Kevin Miles from FSF who briefed the audience on the role of the FSF and the work they have done over the years to help football fans up and down the country offering the help of the FSF to fans. As longstanding members of the FSF we can vouch for the excellent work they have done over the years.

It was then over to the floor with a wide range of questions /suggestions and opinions from a packed audience which covered a number of areas. The audience were encouraged to provide their feedback on the most popular suggestions made by fans following literally 100’s of suggestions made from fans.

Word reached fans in attendance that Mr Ashley was in town …well slightly out of town….and a contingent of fans including members from NUST headed up to Ponteland to register disapproval with the owner and to display Ashley Out/Sports Redirect banners. The night ended with the owner giving the V’s to fans….what more can you say!

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Sports Direct AGM 2018

I don’t spend a lot of time at AGMs; in fact, the Sports Direct version held in a partly finished floor space at Academy House today was my first. I could be wrong, but I’m fairly certain they usually last more than 15 minutes for large scale businesses such as this.

However, after the cursory/derisory amount of time allocated to the meeting, and Ashley’s appearance after saying he was too busy, the most striking aspect of the non-event was the complete absence of a Q&A session involving shareholders in the audience (not to mention the sprinkling of Mags in attendance) questioning the board of directors.

The ‘meeting’ was chaired by Keith Hellawell, who has previously relied on Ashley’s intervention as Chief Executive and majority shareholder to retain his position as Chairman following shareholder unrest. After Hellawell confirmed his and non-executive director Simon Bentley’s resignations, he covered some admin points before giving some guidance on the polling card, which contained the 18 Resolutions that were to be voted upon. Questions were invited from shareholders/proxies, but specifically regarding the 18 Resolutions only. When there were no takers, the board hastily relocated to a nearby meeting room, one making a glib comment about getting to the pub early.

With people unclear whether the meeting was over or briefly adjourned, the room started to empty. There was no ‘any other business’ or opportunity for an open forum Q&A session. As far as I could see, there wasn’t even a printed agenda, only a few rows of plastic seats on a bare concrete floor. I asked both a reporter and a shareholder whether I was wrong to expect a Q&A, and both confirmed that it is normal practice to include this in an AGM.

While Q&A sessions are not a compulsory element of any AGM, they are seen as an ideal opportunity to engage with shareholders and let them have their say. Indeed the ICSA (Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators), who ‘champion good governance practices’, identify the Q&A as one of the main reasons shareholders attend an AGM. It is also seen as an opportunity for good ‘PR’ in front of the media.

Given the current climate of shareholder unrest, including advisory groups advocating voting against Ashley and Hellawell, this should have given the board some much needed face time with their investors. It raises further questions about the corporate governance of Sports Direct, which is at the top of the list of current shareholder concerns, along with a falling share price, the reported £5million payment to his daughter’s boyfriend, and the House of Fraser buyout.

There were no presentations, speeches or any sort of board-shareholder engagement that (according to my research) are common practice in corporate AGMs; Ashley remained silent, with a decidedly uncomfortable look on his face. On reflection, the whole meeting came across as scripted and stage-managed, an approach with which all NUFC fans are all too familiar.

Is this just another example of ‘typical Ashley’? He is either gambling on shareholder loyalty, as he does with ours, or it is another display of outright arrogance and contempt; in my opinion, it is a mixture of both. To quote a recent headline from the national press: “The investors aren’t happy. But Mike Ashley doesn’t have to care.”   

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Who are we?

The Newcastle United Supporters Trust is not a protest group, but a positive force for change.

We seek to benefit our football club and its supporters by channeling the passion of its loyal supporters into a forward-thinking non-profit organisation that is a legally constituted, democratic, not-for-profit Supporters Trust.

The Newcastle United Supporters Trust (NUST) seeks to benefit both the Football Club and its supporters by channeling the passion of Newcastle supporters into a forward-thinking organisation that is a legally constituted, democratic, not-for-profit Supporters Trust of Newcastle United.

Contact Us

PO Box 621

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NE5 9AD

info@nufctrust.co.uk

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